Friday, December 31, 2010

Art Direction, Art Coding

I wake up to find that there's been another round of The Gender Art Wars on the blogs. Awesome!

(I mean that. Awesome! This is the strength of the "blogosphere" I think - roundtable discussions, or arguments, about the issues of the day.)

To catch you up to speed:

Trollsmyth started this new round.
Zak, Oddysey, Greg and Joe chimed in as well.

I must address some of Zak's comments.

Zak makes a point a few times that both makes total 100% sense, and no sense at all (focusing on the issue of art direction in general rather than the specific issue of "marketing to x"):
"Tell [artists] to do whatever they want and pray that one day one of them likes whatever it is that women want--it's the only way to get something with ambisexual appeal AND quality "

"For me, I feel they should be considered part of the content. That way nobody 'from marketing' gets to tell the artist what should be in them and the pictures are more likely to come out unique and personal. Telling Ian Miller or Frank Frazetta or Erol Otus or Trampier to draw a convincing heroic female instead of whatever they were gonna draw is a recipe for disaster and wasted talent."

"When imagery is art-directed and focus-grouped, as it is with the covers of magazines and corporate products--it ALWAYS sucks and ALWAYS appeals not just 'to men' or 'to women' but 'to idiots'"
Now Zak's an artist, and his attitude is understandable. I've been smart enough with Zak to stand back and say "Do whatever you want" for the interior Vornheim artwork and foolish enough to make suggestions for what should be on the cover.

But I'm the publisher. And art director (and mailroom clerk and secretary and sales manager and marketing/PR guy...). I'm still in the middle of art madness for the second printing of Weird Fantasy Role-Playing. I can't draw or paint for shit. So I hire artists.

"Here, do what you want!" doesn't work if I'm paying for it. The art budget has exploded to ridiculous enough heights without paying for a bunch of pieces that I absolutely can't use. There isn't an artist alive whose every work I believe in. I'd go so far as to say there isn't an artist alive who has a majority of work I believe in. I pick artists (and pay them!) based on my confidence in their being able to bend their talent to my vision, not how awesome it would be to give them an opportunity to expand their portfolio how they see fit.

Is it rude to say that? But it's the truth. The artists are there to enhance the writing, not the other way around.

... and I want a product that's going to blow people away and place for industry awards (go for the gold or stay home!). I have specific ideas for many of the pieces. I know what I want, and even pieces where I don't know exactly what I want I know what the overall game needs to look like, so I'm directing the shit out of this artwork. Even to the point of doing my own sketches and telling artists "Do this, without the sucking." Taking photos and saying "put these people in x setting."

Combine that level of interference and direction with the fact that a couple of the artists I know for a fact are not enjoying some of the pieces they work on and you may think there's a problem. I'm an asshole with some of the detail I am asking for. I can see how Zak is exactly right in saying I should leave these people alone to get a better final result.

But... I don't enjoy many of the more tedious aspects of putting together a project and being a publisher either. If you take shortcuts and don't plow through the unpleasant bits with due care, it shows in the end. I'll go so far to say that it's blindingly obvious to anyone looking afterward when someone has ducked the unpleasant bits during the process. Cut corners look like cut corners and no matter what justifications we give for cutting those corners, they show. Customers may be gracious enough to forgive them, but they notice. They shouldn't have to forgive a damn thing.

At this pro-am level, "I don't wanna" just doesn't cut it. Not for me, not for the people working on the project.

There's this goal, this promised land of perfection, and it's on top of the mountain. It doesn't matter how fucking awful it is to get there. Nothing else matters. Just get there! And once you're there, everything you had to do to get there is worth it.

Yeah, just about everyone involved is underpaid for such a project, but everyone else gets paid before I do, if I ever get paid at all. At least I have the moral middle ground of knowing that I'm not taking advantage of the talent while raking in the bucks - they're getting what they asked for. And in exchange, I'm damn well going to get what I ask for.

... but Zak knows all this, and I bet he's smiling with the satisfaction that he doesn't have to put up with any of this shit to make a living from art. :)

And if anyone has any advice of how to commission art to where I get what I want and the artists have all the freedom they want at the same time, I'm all ears. Please.

As to the greater point of "coding" a game's artwork to appeal to a particular group of people:


Forget appeal - I'm making a lot of art choices designed to repulse... which, lucky for me, has an appeal all its own. I may be a bit odd, or I may not be. But I'm not entirely alone in my tastes.

The message in the art is not "Look who you get to be, all these strong images for you to identify with! Isn't that awesome!" It's "You're in for some shit now, you poor dumb dead bastard*!"

The LotFP box cover (that banner art up top of this very blog!), by the way, is not any sort of "gender coding." The elements:

  • I wanted people that I know to be in the art.
  • A human-animal hybrid would be pretty gross and repulsive, right?
  • Redheads rock.
  • The human should be clothed to reflect the not-as-medieval assumed setting of the game.

That some freak would think of the snake demon as "sexualized" or look at the Flame Princess as an "empowering character" didn't concern me when inventing the piece - although I knew it was coming. The four points combined with my need for things to make sense in context is what drove the cover. A monster living in the north woods wouldn't be wearing clothes or have weapons (and TITS on the COVER has a message of its own - "not compromising to chase shelf space"); a woman traveling through the same would be appropriately clothed and equipped (a hat and pack were originally envisioned laying in the snow - the hat had to have been blown off because I wasn't going to obscure that hair - but they were deemed to clutter the piece... so they are off to the right just beyond the border of the pic), it makes sense and I know the story behind the pic.

Why women in the first place? Well the Flame Princess can't be a man, she can't be the monster, and the monster was originally intended to reprise the first Creature Generator cover with the same person as the monster.

The LotFP artwork is coded to appeal to me. Just me. If my maleness, my whiteness, my American-in-Finlandness, my wears-fluffy-green-Cthulhu-slippersness, my listens-to-metalness, my loves-Italian-foodness, my needs-glassesness, my grumpiness**, or any other thing about me strongly influences the artwork that appears in my work, then I proudly fly all those flags. If I have to choose between what pleases me and what pleases the market, the market loses. And I will live with the consequences of that just fine.

PS. Maria wants to say, "A bunch of gamer men talking how to market to women is futile. The first mistake that is made is to clump all women into some unified group, which they are not. Purely gender does not make anybody like or dislike something. You are looking at a more diverse group than just mere sexual orientation."

PPS. Maria on The Depiction of Women in Gaming article: "She can not extend her comments beyond herself."

But what the hell does Maria know? She's the sort of woman who would marry me.

* Planet Algol really rocks, doesn't it?
** wife suggested that one


  1. On Art Direction:(not that you need MY advice, small businessman that you are...) Follow your vision. People might just like it. Your money should be sufficient motivation for any artist I heard tell of. You're the boss.

    On the Tits, "not compromising to chase shelf space" is NOT what it says to non-marketing people: it says TITS, bro... "A human-animal hybrid would be pretty gross and repulsive, right?" Um, no, not to Humanity, we like a lot of Weird stuff! Not to mention lots of people who don't think they're particularly perverted enjoy things like your snake titty monster.(Do you have anything against people who like that kinda thing? They've got money and play RPGs, too...) I thought you were down with the alternative stuff, ya know, not mainstream, and all that. :-)

    Your wife's comments: comment 2 compliments comment 1, even if it is a good point, imo. I personally speak for me only, though some seem to agree: more diverse art, not just WOW-style posturing with the same repetitive women/men stylized figures on like, every book. It's not like that look is going away, unless people start hating it or something, which I doubt. And apparently, Maria knows you, right?(And hasn't killed you, so that's something, right?) Your Charisma must be higher than you think or whatnot....

    More of this, please: "You're in for some shit now, you poor dumb dead bastard!". And more covers like the box set would be awesome(for me, at least).

    I Enjoy your work, and your candor,; I regularly read the blog now. Thanks for the Creature Generator in particular.(I bought product; you gotta listen to me now, right? I'm a CUSTOMER :-)) One of these days I should be able to try LOTFP, and I'm looking forward to it.


  2. >>Not to mention lots of people who don't think they're particularly perverted enjoy things like your snake titty monster.

    I like it too, but it is a monster and is filling the same role as, say, an otyugh or owlbear. It's not supposed to be inviting or appealing.

    >>(I bought product; you gotta listen to me now, right? I'm a CUSTOMER :-))

    All honesty? "I'm a customer" means your opinion does weigh more than "I'm not a customer."

    The criticism I look for is stuff that tells me how to do the things I do better, not criticism that tells me I should be doing something else entirely.

  3. If I have to choose between what pleases me and what pleases the market, the market loses.

    how much compromise are you willing to accept?

  4. Until it no longer pleases me.

    I can't get more specific than that. There are no firm lines of "I will never do *this* and must always do *that*!" Depends on the project, or even the piece in question.

    I can be reasoned with though. Artists and I have disagreed on various things at different points and sometimes the artist wins because their point of view made more sense than mine.

    But if something grates against my sensibilities, putting money and my name on it doesn't make much sense.

  5. Jim, I agree with pretty much everything you are saying here. My critiques in the past have been about widespread appeal and marketability, not artistic freedom or what you should do for yourself. I do all my work for my own gratification, no money is involved, so I really do whatever I want. My saving grace is that I can get lots of donated art because it is free, then choose what I want to use from that pool. I have a pool of about 150 pieces for my scifi conversion of Errant. So I don't really have problems related to giving directions to artists like you do.

  6. I will not pretend to know what other people want or like because I think that is futile. Another lifetime ago I worked as a commericial photographer doing (among other things) photo shoots of products for a major American retailer. I went to art school and knew a lot about lighting and the right button to push to make a camera take a photo but all of the 'creative direction' and 'marketing speak' made me want to shoot myself in the head. My impression is that the marketing people were trying to predict how other people would react by listening to the people who bothered to complain (which, in the scheme of things, was a tiny number). And (I'm convinced of this), the people who were angry enough to write or call in and complain about a photo in an advertisement are usually INSANE people... And they would complain about stuff like 'the five pointed stars in your 4th of July ad look Satanic,' or 'Because the old man in the ad is sitting next to a young girl reading a book he looks like a child molester.' I'm not making this shit up. If you print something and send it out into the world, you are creating a kind of Rorsach test for every nut to come out of the woodwork and say that your photo of a bag of potatoe chips is Satanic or every old man sitting on a porch with his grand daughter is a pervert.
    If you have a clear idea of what you want and why, good for you. I guess in the end, if it is your business and the artist goes in with his/her eyes open and you make your requests clear, the artist can decide to take the work or not. After years of working for art directors who didn't know what they wanted (or would claim that they 'would know it when they would see it'), I'm sometimes wary of such arrangements (although I feel like I do OK in them providing the art director likes my work to begin with). But I'm also someone who feels like there is a difference between 'art' and 'illustration.' I don't demean or look down on illustration (I earn a little coin doing illustration myself), but feel like it serves a different purpose.
    I've done some illustration work for a number of clients, but my favorite work so far (and the one I had the most fun with) was my Exquisite Corpses book... because I did everything and didn't have to answer to anyone. It's not perfect, but I had a lot of fun with it and some others seem to have enjoyed it too --- so, as far as I can see, it is a personal success. When I get an art order from someone else who wants a picture of an X with a Y and a Z, I (usually) enjoy the work (providing the instructions are clear and the client wanted ME to do it rather than hoping that I could do it like Larry Elmore at a bargain price), then I enjoy the work, but I feel less like an artist and more like an illustrator. The only difference, I guess, is that my own personal investment in the work is decreased.
    Finally, this is pure genius:
    Maria wants to say, "A bunch of gamer men talking how to market to women is futile. The first mistake that is made is to clump all women into some unified group, which they are not. Purely gender does not make anybody like or dislike something. You are looking at a more diverse group than just mere sexual orientation."

  7. I love your cover of the flame princess vs snake monster. The clothing she wears, the four armed snake monster. It just sets up a cool vibe for the game. Every one who has seen that box instantly says how cool it is. So i think your taste good or bad works great for what your doing.

  8. I don't get the lack of action comment on the box cover. The Princess is swinging a sword and the snake demon is ready to claw her eyes out. It's on par with other covers out there as far as action goes, or is my lack of drawing, painting skills rearing its ugly head again?

    Oops,it wasn't this blog that I read that comment. Well, I'm not going to the trouble of looking it up; I've been to too many blogs this morning.

    Happy New Year everyone!

  9. Huh. As an illustrator, I'm in 100% agreement with you on the first half. I think a lot of the conflict in this debate arose from Zak being a gallery artist as opposed to a commercial illustrator.

    To Maria's comments: Yeah, the irony of a bunch of guys arguing over how and whether to market to women wasn't lost on me. But I still think it was a discussion worth having.

  10. @Chris

    If you look at the history of RPG art, you either get good art by artists who are treated as semi-equal by the writers-who were handed the book and said "draw what interests you from this material", or you get bad art by artists who are told to execute whatever the writer came up with.

    Occasionally you get good art executed by artists who are "taking a lot of art direction". Then those people leave RPG art very quickly and move on to another field where they can do what interests them and the only people left are the Larry Elmores of the world.

  11. @Zak

    Don't get me wrong - I'm much happier when I can do my own thing without AD, in the same way I think any writer who is honest will say they are happier without an editor's input. That doesn't mean the result of having an AD or an editor is going to be crap.

    I'll take your word on how the history of RPG art has panned out. But that's kind of the point - hire artists who typically draw the kinds of things you want, who can handle art direction. Don't hire artists that obviously don't draw what you want. This should be obvious from their portfolio. Don't hire artists who are going to balk the first time you say "I like this sketch, but I think it would look better from this angle." I'm not surprised those artists left the industry - I am surprised they found enough paid work elsewhere that didn't step on their ego.

  12. @Chris

    Most artists can draw "what you want".

    But when "what you want" is 3 paragraphs long, it'll be sheer coincidence and miracle if its any good.

    Don't hire artists who can "handle art direction". Hire artists who are in synch with the writers and can make an equal contribution by expanding a sentence-long remit into something only they could have done.

  13. @JimLOTFP:
    On the Snake Lady: Neo-Otyugh or Owlbear? I think naga/yaun-ti/Lamia/Snake people in general are pretty well known these days, and don't elicit the WTF that these monsters would.(I mean you never see them out of D&D games, right?) The uniqueness is in the two women(one a monster, the other presumably not.) sizing each other up as they prepare to disembowel each other.(The Stare-down as you said, part of the suspense element you're trying to instill, perhaps?) Oh, and the appropriate adventuring attire in the environment is a welcome surprise.

    On Customer'ness': Fuck what I think, unless it makes sense to you. If I buy, I do. If not: oh, well. In all seriousness: Life's too short, and especially, your job's your hobby.

    Oh, and here's one: a cheaper boxed set, if you think possible/desirable. I got some friends who'd probably pick it up if it were competitive with Dragon Age, Set 1, say...

    @ZAK S: After the faddish phase of D&D was over, ther was what 5-7 TSR house artists? All of whom did commissions to make their bills, as I understand... They were left more or less alone 'cuz management didn't really care, as Elmore and Willingham tell. Most other artists there or anywhere, now and then, had to takea little direction; if only more/less blood, bigger muscles/tits, stick an elf in there, how about a dragon, that stuff... On, "the only people left are the Larry Elmores of the world." I guess you're not a fan of his either, huh? I find his art merely ok, but it defined D&D for like 15 years, and influenced dragons' size!

    @limpey: Some people see weird things without chemical assistance. I've had your experience on that score. Never again.

  14. @Zak

    I don't find much to disagree with there and don't want to start the new year arguing with you. Cheers?

  15. @James

    As an artist working on this project, I spend most of my energy and effort on trying to guess and interpret exactly what it is you want for a given picture. It is draining - language is an inferior method when trying communicate the very specific visual desires you have.

    I'd rather spend that energy on putting love into the drawings.

    Your specificity and firmness in art direction creates a sort of invisible box (from the point of view of the artist) and fear of stepping outside that box hampers the creative process and the limits the potential for innovation.

  16. >>Oh, and here's one: a cheaper boxed set, if you think possible/desirable. I got some friends who'd probably pick it up if it were competitive with Dragon Age, Set 1, say...

    The Grindhouse Edition is looking to be 20-25% cheaper than the Deluxe Edition. Still a decent chunk of money but you're getting a decent chunk of game.

    Amos - if I'm communicating badly, let me know. Kick me in the ass. If you think I'm wrong somewhere, kick me in the ass and let's get it sorted.

  17. "You're in for some shit now, you poor dumb dead bastard*!"

    Yes, Planet Algol does indeed rock. This sentiment, this worldview is what attracted me to Glen Cook's Black Company series, and to a lesser extent Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts series, and Joe Abercrombie's writing as well.

  18. I think you should include for the elements of the banner/box art "Must be very, very, cool", simply because you nailed that one.

    Also, is it just me or does the six-armed creature seem to have legs and actually be be fused to the body of a snake? I think that's way creepier than a hybrid. Then again I recently made a Bugbear-Brownie mix, and plan on using it as a character, so maybe it's just that things like that don't freak me out.

  19. nope, can't think of the snake bitch as titillating even if i try really, really hard. flame princess is attractive as hell and i think it's because she's wielding that sword with such steely confidence. love the setting 'cause i can envision darkthrone or gorgorath playing there.

    you've got a vision dude, hammer it hard. sorry, but any artist who puts their ego over the check signers desires shouldn't be doing illustration for an independent game publisher. i don't mean to sound like a dick, but they're hired guns and your paying for their talents because you believe in their abilities to create your visions. at the end of the day it is your project, your vision, your money, your time and life energy invested and your publishing house that is being represented. you and no one else deals with the post publication aftermath.

    i also think way too much is being made of the gender issue. the fact that nearly ALL the comments are from men makes it crystal clear who the LotFP market is. the only female comments i remember reading indicated that they were insulted by the pre-packed PC parroting of the men weighing in with their 'imaginary feminine perspectives'.

  20. @headspice

    -recheck the comments on the blogs that sparked this post if you think all the girls were insulted. You are wrong.

    -if the illustrator is a hired gun doing what the writer wants then, yeah, that's how it should be, they should check their "ego" (translation: "their ideas"). But why SHOULDN'T the illustrator be treated a collaborator instead? Unless you can think of one good reason, you are wrong.

    -And you're completely, totally, 100% wrong in every possible way it is possible to be wrong if you think an illustrator does not devote time, life, and energy to a product s/he works on and does not have to deal with the consequences of its publication. In fact that's so wrong I'm kinda stunned anyone capable of the mental energy required to type coherently could think it. Artists whole careers are based on public perception of what they make. If they are doing less than they could've in order to fit some narrow remit, that affects them as much or even MORE than it affects the author of that work.

  21. I'm a girl and I think and I think Zak's right. Though I suppose you'd expect I'd say that

  22. I like art, but I like art in other sense, I adore real living art, I love pictures, good music, museum and especially poetry, that's why I am woking as a writer and help people, especially students with their home assignments, essays, excel works which you can find at differetn ppt presentations and so on.
    But neverthelles, thanks to your blog!